Last week, it serendipitously so happened that two sequels to Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel Watchmen both concluded. On Sunday, December 15th, the season one finale of the eponymously titled HBO series aired, followed in short succession that Wednesday with the long-delayed twelfth issue of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s comic series Doomsday Clock. Prior to the HBO series’ release, showrunner David Lindelof said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly,
I do feel like the spirit of Alan Moore is a punk rock spirit, a rebellious spirit, and that if you would tell Alan Moore, a teenage Moore in ’85 or ’86, ‘You’re not allowed to do this because Superman’s creator or Swamp Thing’s creator doesn’t want you to do it,’ he would say, ‘Fuck you, I’m doing it anyway.’ So I’m channeling the spirit of Alan Moore to tell Alan Moore, ‘Fuck you, I’m doing it anyway.’”
By the ninth and final episode, “See How They Fly,” Lindelof has clearly made good on his promise to deliver a middle finger to Moore, not merely for playing with characters Moore created against his wishes, but by doing so with a similar irreverence for the source material that has so often plagued adaptations of Moore’s works, to his constant consternation. Doomsday Clock likewise is unafraid to flip off the master of the medium by concluding with a thesis that runs directly contrary to the original. Which is not to suggest that neither HBO’s series or Doomsday Clock approach Watchmen with some semblance of reverence. Both attempt to ape various aspects of the original in their own ways, and to differing degrees of success, though along every axis any comparison between the two sequels always falls in favor of the comic.
The original Watchmen had a highly architectonic structure. Its nine-panel grid was strictly adhered to without exception. Many of the individual issues immaculately balanced focusing on a single character while also advancing the narrative, taking full advantage of the form of the medium. And it demonstrated a keen sense of symmetry. Firstly between the art and the narration, with the statements in dialogue boxes juxtaposed against the events depicted in the panel. Secondly in the layout of the panels, as with the issue “Fearful Symmetry,” in which the layout of the first half mirrors that of the second, a la a Rorschach ink blot. Thirdly in the parallelism at play plot wise between the main plot and the comic-within-a-comic, “Tales of the Black Freighter.”
HBO’s Watchmen makes an admirable effort to translate these devices into the television medium. It too has a show-within-a-show, “American Hero Story,” albeit used to different effect, as its narrative is not thematically parallel to the main story, but rather an indictment against the superhero genre on the silver and small screens as well as against the “whitewashing” of history. Likewise, several of the episodes effectively focus in on characters like Looking Glass, Hooded Justice, and Doctor Manhattan, while always advancing the narrative. The episode “A god Walks into a Bar” in particular demonstrates a great deal of similarity to “Watchmaker,” serving as a spiritual successor to that issue as it depicts the events of the second half of Osterman’s life in the same non-linear structure. Even the creative title screens are evocative of the unique comic covers which doubled as the first panels of each issue. The show’s structural cohesion is the most love evidenced for the source material.
Doomsday Clock, however, has the advantage of sharing its medium with the Watchmen comic, by virtue of which it’s better able to appropriate its structural conventions. It shares the same strict nine panel grid, something the show had no means of replicating. Likewise with its use of supplemental material in the backmatter. While none of the issues evidence quite the architectonic structuring of Moore’s “Fearful Symmetry” or Grant Morrison’s Watchmen homage Pax Americana, in every other way the structure of the comic evidences continuity to the original. Instead of a comic-within-a-comic, Doomsday Clock has the film The Adjournment, part of the Nathaniel Dusk franchise. But The Adjournment goes beyond the parallelism of Black Freighter. By utilizing a film instead of a comic, Johns is able to not only parallel the plot of The Adjournment with that of Doomsday Clock but also to intertwine them, making the actor who portrayed Nathaniel Dusk a key character in the main narrative.
Moreover, the utilization of Nathaniel Dusk in particular – who had previously existed in the DC Universe main continuity before being relegated to a fiction within it – neatly ties together Doomsday Clock’s metafictional and metatextual elements. It assumes Morrison’s thesis in Multiversity that the fictions (specifically comic books) in each universe act as a window to the true history of other worlds in the multiverse. Veidt notes “Although there are vast differences between our Earths, the greatest divergence is the sheer number of men and women wearing masks, some of them entirely fictional on our world,” suggesting its denizens were reading not only the tales of the Black Freighter, but of the Justice League and Teen Titans as well.
Doomsday Clock then builds upon this notion to say that the entire real world publication history is a window into the broader multiverse’s history across hypertime. Thus, Action Comics #1 being published in our world in 1938 parallels the first appearance of the Superman within the whole causal sequence of continuities – the DC Metaverse – as observed (and therefore affected) by Doctor Manhattan. The answer then to the metafictional question of whether Dusk is real or fictitious within the larger fiction is “both.” Whereas the history of the Watchmen universe was broadly reflective of the history of the comics medium, with the Minutemen representative of the Golden Age and the emergence of Doctor Manhattan and a new generation of heroes representative of the Silver Age, by dialoguing as it does with the entire publication history of DC Comics, Doomsday Clock takes the metatextuality only hinted at in the original and makes it a major motif.
HBO’s Watchmen, on the other hand, never once meaningfully dialogues with texts other than the original comic. It has nothing to say with respect to either the comics medium or the television medium. Even “American Hero Story” is vacuous in its cynicism of the superhero genre, painting a straw man of overly violent and overly glorified on-screen masked vigilantes that bears no noticeable resemblance to anything in the Arrowverse or Marvel’s Netflix offerings. Its interest in exploring history – both real and speculative – comes at the cost of exploring genre or media.
That interest in alternate history is of a piece with the original Watchmen. The show walks down the divergent paths bushwhacked by the comic, sometimes to great effect, but sometimes getting lost. The liberation and subsequent statehood of Vietnam is treated with especially sharp cynicism. But the retcon of Hooded Justice as a black vigilante not only ties into real world history via the Tulsa Race Riots, but smartly integrates elements already present such as the noose around his neck and gives them added depth through that historical context.
One particularly dramatic departure from real history in HBO’s Watchmen timeline is the presidency of actor Robert Redford. Astute comic readers will note that the actor was also named dropped as the president circa 1992 in the first issue of Doomsday Clock. This is not a coincidence. A newspaper in Watchmen #12 alludes to an actor by the initials of R.R. running for the presidency, with Leslie Klinger noting in Watchmen Annotated that this was not Ronald Reagan, as fans were wont to assume, but rather Robert Redford, leading to both sequels to pick up on this same thread. Strangely, Doomsday Clock’s portrayal of Redford is as Trump in all but name, even having the president golfing on the eve of Armageddon all whilst he nationalizes the media with William Buckley Jr. at the head of the new news network.
Given that HBO’s Watchmen lingers longer in that universe (instead of relegating it to nuclear annihilation as in the second issue of Doomsday Clock), the show is afforded more opportunity to explore the consequences of a member of the Left-leaning Hollywood elite at the nation’s helm. The series is surprisingly sober in its pessimistic prospects about such. “Redfordations” – reparations paid to the black descendants of racial violence – only serve to aggravate racial tensions in their timeline, and seem to have catalyzed the white identitarianism of the 7th Kavalry.
HBO’s Watchmen lasers in on this white identitarianism as the primary problem plaguing society, demonstrating the same focus as the original did with nuclear war. Lady Trieu – playing the part of her biological parent, Ozymandias – masterminds a plan to prevent the white supremacist equivalent of nuclear holocaust, namely the apotheosis of Republican Senator Joe Keene in place of Doctor Manhattan. Unlike the real prospect of mutually assured destruction during the height of the Cold War, the ascendency of a white nationalist to near-godhood is far from an immediate prospect.
Even as a metaphor it falls flat. Here one of Keene’s quotes is particularly telling. “It is extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now. Might try to be a blue one.” Insofar as a certain percentage of white Americans evidence anxieties about the demographic direction of the country, such is in response to their decreased relative influence in American culture and politics in the present period, itself the result of the success of the American ideal of equality becoming more perfectly realized, not less. The moral arc of the universe having bent toward (at the very least racial) justice, the prospects of a resurgent Klan or a return to Jim Crow continue to lessen, and thus the danger which Keene represents in the present is a bogus boogie compared to the danger in the recent past of Soviets launching their nuclear arsenal.
Doomsday Clock better has its pulse on the problem presently plaguing American society. It acknowledges white identitarianism, albeit identifying it as one instance of a far larger issue of increased tribalism in general, whether that be racial or ideological. Reggie Long as Rorschach (a more logical legacy of the character than the Kavalry) gets it exactly right (sans his grammatical errors, same as his predecessor): “The undeplorables scream to hear themselves deafened in their echo chambers… The world is drowning in hate and anger, sides separated by an ever-widening canyon of digital bile. Soon both factions will tumble off the edge, falling into bottomless pit of liberal self-righteousness and outdated identity politics, hands clutching their weaponized phones, finding no olive branch to save them.”
Reggie oddly juxtaposes leftism against the right’s penchant for white tribalism, strangely failing to acknowledge that the latter’s majority identity politics is part and parcel with the former’s minority identity politics – a Rorschachian symmetry if ever there was one. Nevertheless, in placing the locus of societal strife in hyperpartisanship and ideological tribalism as aggravated by self-segregation, especially in digital spaces, it evidences a more comprehensive account of the problem, one which subsumes the HBO series’ diagnostic within its own. Unlike the television show’s singular spotlight on white supremacy, Doomsday Clock is far less focused, and instead of solely opposing the partisanship it purports to critique, the major source of civil strife becomes the uncovering of true conspiracies, both Ozymandias’ and the Department of Metahuman Affairs’ creation of various superhumans. But even where it fails in focus it still succeeds in finding a more apt modern-day equivalent to the threat of nuclear war in the ever-deepening divide of the American left and right, and by blaming both sides for such hyperpartisanship evidences more balance than the HBO series.
Given the superiority in quality of Doomsday Clock over the HBO series with respect to all of the above* – the formal structure, the use of metafictionality and metatextuality, and their diagnoses of the core crises of our age – it’s an odd claim to say that Doomsday Clock is more of a “fuck you” to Alan Moore.
It all comes down to the message of each work, especially with respect to Moore’s use of Watchmen to deconstruct the superhero genre. The HBO series makes every effort to do exactly as Moore did, placing realistically flawed humans in capes and cowls and showing how their foibles would leave us with less than heroic heroes. Giving even duly-appointed officers of the law masks turns them into fascists who trample individual rights, and the Seventh Kavalry’s use of masks emboldens their criminality. Even Hooded Justice’s use of a costume persona is shown to endanger and alienate his family in order to sate his penchant for violence. It shows the types of individuals who’d actually become masked vigilantes in real life, questioning the comic medium’s fantasy of costumed do-gooders being paragons of virtue.
Conversely, Doomsday Clock is a reconstruction of the superhero genre in comics. It establishes Superman’s centrality by making him the locus around which the entire Metaverse forms. Whereas Manhattan in the original was supposed to show how such a being would be out of touch with and disinterested in humanity by virtue of his powers, in Doomsday Clock Superman’s indomitable faith in humanity inspires even Manhattan. To get to this moment Johns has to play fast and loose with the internal rules and logic of the fiction. Doctor Manhattan’s omniscience is hand-waved away whenever doing so adds to the drama, most conveniently as the climactic showdown between the two supermen. But the result is a transformation in Osterman’s outlook every bit as effective as the one he had on Mars with Laurie, albeit instead of a newfound interest in humanity he now has a newfound respect for superhumanity. As such, Doomsday Clock is a repudiation of Moore’s cynical attitude towards comic book superheroes and an affirmation of their relevance.
Importantly, the ambiguous ending of the original in which it is unclear whether Ozimandias’ machinations have saved humanity is one aspect of the original which Johns makes no effort to parallel. Not only has Superman quite clearly saved the day once again, doing so inspires – always Clark’s greatest ability – Manhattan to introduce into the Metaverse yet another instantiation of the Superman-motif: a better version of himself, named, appropriately Clark, ready to be raised on a farm by loving parents (Laurie and Dan Dreiberg). This is more than playing with Moore’s characters – it’s Johns telling the wizard in no uncertain terms that the unapologetic heroes Johns prefers to play with are in every way better than Moore’s deconstructions, and proceeding to give the Crimebusters a make-over in the Justice League’s image.
And that’s the true genius of Doomsday Clock. It may not be a better, more original, or more important piece of literature than Watchmen, but in working to lovingly reconstruct instead of deconstruct the superhero genre, it’s doing an important service to the culture of comics. Moore showed via Watchmen and his other works that comics can be high art. Johns demonstrates in Doomsday Clock that four-colored cape operas can rise to those same heights.